By Molly Ryan, Virginia Tech
Pronouns and Black Markers
I remember my first day of writing center tutoring distinctly: I can see the desk I selected, third from the front by one of the large windows on the outer wall of the second floor of Newman library at Virginia Tech. I remember the brightly colored Crayola markers laid out for tutors, selecting the black marker to write my name on my identifying tag, and then offering a parenthetical “she/her” after, despite the fact that all the other name tags I saw didn’t include pronouns.
The black was a strategic decision — I was a serious tutor, and a serious tutor who took this job seriously, and that double-seriousness extended to the inclusion of my pronouns. The pronouns, I subliminally thought to myself, were quite rainbow enough.
At the time, I considered this metaphorical act of seriousness as a demonstration of commitment to my own queerness. But the far more troubling undertone was the concern that my queerness was inherently predispositioned to be unserious, and that being inclusive somehow threatened my credibility.
On a personal level, this small dichotomous choice of color and including my pronouns reflected my own liminal discomfort with my identity, both as a student and a tutor. How, I asked myself, did positionality factor into tutoring? What about identity — specifically queer identity? I didn’t see, at the time, how they could intersect — and my immediate instinct was that perhaps they should remain separate. In my biography, limited to painfully few characters, I’d written that I was studying LGBTQ+ rhetoric, but even that decision gave me pause. I didn’t believe the writing center was a place that was inherently queer.
That first day in the writing center, in the second week of classes, just as I was at the cusp of beginning my graduate journey, felt like a very real manifestation of what I’d experienced from the moment I signed the graduate school contract: a sense of paralyzed enthusiasm that originated from intense imposter syndrome.
The writing center appointment as part of my assistantship was the perfect metaphor for this condition: I was very excited to be in the position to help students, and yet I felt completely under qualified to do so. I felt a bit like I was at the starting line of a race I was incredibly excited to run, but I didn’t know the length or terrain or competitors. I didn’t know if my prior training, both as an English major and then in five post-undergraduate years of working in Student Affairs administration, would apply to this new phase of my life.
This paralyzed enthusiasm was again reflected, and perhaps entangled, with my own identity. While I’d known with profound immediacy from the time I was a young child that I was queer, and specifically that I was a lesbian, I’d spent the entirety of my life not hiding my queerness, but – if you will – disguising it with a black marker. I skirted it, avoided it, lied by omission about it – not because of any particular shame, but because I carried years of internalized societal homophobia that trained me not to lead with queerness, not to make it part of my scholarly identity, and that best practice was at minimum to decenter this overly personal facet of my life.
This shielding and hiding was not so much the result of overt trauma. Rather, it was an act of mirroring. I’d had a profound lack of queer representation in my life, aside from me and my long-term partner. As an undergraduate, I didn’t see faculty that matched my identity. Queer theory wasn’t widely taught in my courses — in fact, I didn’t even know it existed as a field until I was working in Student Affairs. Heteronormativity was everywhere I looked: in school, in popular culture, among my friends. So, I hid. I blended. I developed magician-worthy tactics to not draw attention to my alternity.
But post 2020, and as I began graduate school, I was tired of nearly twenty years of skirting my personal truth. I wanted to be out. As silly as it might sound, I wanted people – even those who didn’t know me – to be able to tell I was queer. I recognize the privilege with that viewpoint, and I don’t want to understate the amount of fear, even terror, that accompanied this thought. And I wasn’t fully committed to this notion, either: as was demonstrated by my wavering of how to position my studies, how to articulate my revamped scholarly identity, how – and if – queerness would be a part of my coursework, my research, my writing center practice, my eventual teaching.
I didn’t know it on that first day of tutoring – defined by sweaty palms and black markers and appointments where I attempted to seem cool, confident, and collected – but my time in the writing center would be one of the greatest gifts of my graduate education. What began as a manifestation of my personal discomfort with my newly defined identity became a vehicular affirmation not only of who I was as a tutor, but who I was becoming as a scholar.
This piece presents a narrative of my own formation through my tutoring experience, coupled with suggested reflective practices for the reader, designed to adapt to a variety of roles from tutor to administrator, to offer the opportunity to engage in some investigative exploration of their own identities.
The Folklore of the Queer Writing Center
It was between appointments in my first semester of graduate school, at my desk third from the front, that I read Travis Webster’s Queerly Centered for the first time — and became aware that my joy when I worked with students, my enthusiasm for learning tutoring strategies, my growing pull toward writing center work beyond my capacity as a tutor was not just informed by my queerness, but an act of my queerness coming into its own.
Queerly Centered is particularly resonant in this context because of its demonstration of the range of queer identities and comeuppances within writing center contexts, as well as the beautiful, complicated, and messy manifestations of queer experiences within the writing center itself. My curiosity was piqued by the wide range of identities and experiences he so carefully coded and transcribed, and soon I was engrossed in what it meant not only to queer the writing center, but to be queer in the writing center.
Queerly Centered is not the only piece of seminal scholarship on queering the writing center, of course, and my curiosities of my own becoming through this experience of tutoring were further impacted by the work of Harry Denny, who resonantly articulated the writing center not only as a vessel through which to wrestle through some of these challenges of identity, but also as a place of folklore: of written and unwritten histories, stories, and narratives in the making.
In many ways, it felt like the writing center more clearly marked the growth notches in my identity than my coursework, particularly the first semester. I could feel my confidence growing, feel my tutoring technique settling more thoroughly into queer-theory informed heuristics, feel my scholarly opinions forming more concretely: like, for example, the importance of acknowledging and celebrating positionality in research writing, particularly for undergraduate students. In many ways, the writing center was the setting of my own scholarly folklore. It was writing the lyrics to the foundational melodies that would become the soundtrack to my new identity.
Understanding this folklore meant reflective recognition of choices I was making: elements of queer tutoring strategies that included a focus on writer positionality and identity, decentering myself as the tutor, and placing empathy and encouragement over critique in my order of concerns. This also meant reflecting on the students who made appointments with me. This is not to say that I’m arguing that my own openness of my queer study in my biography drew other queer students — but I noticed that students who came to me were often forthcoming with whatever challenges they were facing, and – at least in my perception – seemed to identify a sense of safety with me. I wondered if because I was open and vulnerable about my identity, my students felt more comfortable being vulnerable with me.
Even the writing center itself, in its physical and metaphorical space, began to feel queer to me. It was a collection of random desks, distinguished by limited signage and creative use of whiteboards, positioned on a random floor of the university library, not within the English department. Its website did not connect to the English department. Its tutors came from all varieties of backgrounds. It was decidedly external to all its theoretically tied “homes.” And yet, it was a locus of all varieties of work, all fields, all levels — from undergraduate to visiting scholars. The work we did as tutors was influential in so many ways: from improving marks in courses, to helping students earn scholarships and fellowships, to assisting in graduate school and job applications. And yet, like so many aspects of queerness, the significance of this work was spectral, invisible, present but unseen.
Reflective Practices and Acts of Becoming
While this piece focuses on queerness, I believe that the writing center carries high folkloric potential for tutors (and students) of all identities, and certainly fosters opportunities for affirming positionality – and, to be bold, who you are in the university landscape. To understand these reflective self-analytical practices, of course, it’s crucial to acknowledge a certain messiness, or unfinished quality, to this work. In other words, the writing center’s queerness and fluidity extends to the experience of being a tutor.
I offer these reflective practices because they informed my own understanding of my transformation, my embrace of my queer identity, and my understanding of my approach to tutoring and the higher education landscape more broadly. That said, these approaches are meant to be taken lightly, playfully, and as they suit each tutor or administrator’s personal goals and where they are in their own academic journey.
To offer an example outside of the realm of queerness: if I, as a hypothetical undergraduate tutor, identify strongly with my major or discipline (or not), that positionality will factor, at least to a certain degree, into my approach to tutoring. As an undergraduate, I was a double major in Creative Writing and Professional and Technical Writing. My identity as a Creative Writing major was different from my identity as a Professional and Technical Writing Major — for example, my opinions on punctuation and grammatical convention were radically different depending on which perspective I was speaking from. While the Creative Writing side of my positionality would argue punctuation is all relative and a choice in voice and author expression, the Professional and Technical Writing side would disagree and assert that convention adds to the continuity and accessibility of multidisciplinary genres.
It’s a simple example, and it may seem obvious, but that simple reconciliation isn’t one I necessarily would’ve been aware of before I started tutoring as an undergraduate. Reflecting on scholarly identity is important regardless of whether those identities fall into big, complex characterizations, or smaller, more easily navigable characterizations. Scholarly and personal identities are arguably never “finished” and never stagnant, and to acknowledge the work of Kimberle Crenshaw, there are multiple identities of both tutors and students at play at any given moment.
These questions are meant to be a generous and allowing starting point. I see these practices as an opportunity to journal, write-on, and mentally consider, for seasoned tutors, new tutors, and practitioners alike.
Practice One: Active Questioning
This practice seems simple, but as someone who had spent so long actively avoiding my identity, particularly my queerness, I began asking myself this series of questions within the first month of my writing center work. Not only did sketching some answers help me to clarify my tutoring philosophy, those messy free writes also provided a helpful benchmark for me to reflect on later, as my confidence grew and my identity felt more familiar.
- Who am I as a tutor? What adjectives describe my tutoring style?
- What identities do I carry with me into the writing center each day?
- Do those identities shift based on appointment modality? For example, in an in-person appointment versus an online asynchronous appointment?
- What do I wish my students could know about me that isn’t immediately apparent?
- Is there an aspect of my identity that I keep hidden while in writing center contexts?
Practice Two: Inventive Identities
Similar to goal planning, this particular method involves a process of free writing that is repeatable and replicable. For example, for writing center directors, this practice could be adapted for tutores at the beginning of their tenure and repeated as they exit, with the questions revised for the past tense.
- Imagine yourself after a year of tutoring in the writing center. What do you foresee that you’ve learned? Who have you grown into?
- What kind of tutor do you see yourself becoming in a year?
- What are your goals in this moment? What do you think they will be in a year?
Practice Three: Reflective Impressioning
The final practice I recommend to identify and celebrate rising folklores or identities is to examine patterns or emotive feelings over time while tutoring. For example:
- Does nervousness or uncertainty eventually develop into confidence and security? If so, what are the variables that marked that shift?
- How has the tonality of language shifted over time in written comments? Have the comments become more personalized?
- What are the values that defined your tutoring at the beginning of your work versus now? Have they shifted or stayed the same?
While these three practices are not the only way to explore identity in writing center work, they are designed to be relatively adaptable, broadly applicable, and an honest first step into introducing reflective practice with an emphasis on becoming.
I recognize, too, that not all tutors will have the same experience or be granted the amount of explorative privilege that I was during my tutoring. I realize that not all tutors will feel comfortable or be safe in exploring these aspects of their identity. But the intention of this piece is to recognize the inherent magic that the writing center carries – and how, for those who are looking for a place to find it, the writing center can become a (queer) home for enlightened exploration.
I would like to dedicate this work to Dr. Travis Webster, not only for his incredible scholarship on queer writing center work that guided this essay, but for his care, encouragement, and profound empathy in my personal scholarly journey.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé W. On Intersectionality: Essential Writings. The New Press, 2017.
Denny, Harry. “Queering the Writing Center.” Writing Center Journal, vol. 25, no. 2, 2005, pp. 39-62
Webster, Travis. Queerly Centered: LGBTQA Writing Center Directors Navigate the Workplace. University Press of Colorado, 2021.
Molly Ryan (she/her) is a second year Master’s student in English at Virginia Tech, pursuing the Rhetoric and Writing track. Broadly, Molly’s research focuses on critical composition pedagogy; queer pedagogy, pronoia and eunoia in teaching writing; and the fraught, complex experiences of writing program administrators, particularly related to mentorship and disciplinary retention. Molly teaches introduction to college writing and writing from research, and is looking forward to beginning her PhD in Rhetoric and Writing in Fall of 2023.